Isabel Stevens on Agnes Varda
The following piece by Isabel Stevens was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema for The Luminaries programme.
If there’s one moment in Agnès Varda’s brimming career that encapsulates both her and her cinema, it’s a scene in her 2000 essay film The Gleaners and I. In it, she speeds down a motorway, mini-DV camera in her right hand, while her left hand reaches up to the windscreen to encircle a large commercial lorry driving in front. Her hand looms large, the truck suddenly seems tiny. And then it is gone. She crushes it in her fist.
The filmmaking guerrilla that is 89-year-old Agnès Varda has been making her own defiant cinema defiantly since her feature debut La Pointe Courte back in 1955. Varda didn’t come from a cinephile background. Unlike many of her New Wave contemporaries – Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette – Varda wasn’t a critic first and she says she didn’t even go to the cinema back then. She was a photographer who had studied art history and literature but her lack of knowledge or experience was never a barrier for her. Neither was the fact that she knew of no female director role models. The 25-year-old Varda wanted to make a film and so she did. She scraped together a small budget; recruited two actors from the Théâtre National Populaire where she worked; convinced the inhabitants of Sète, the fishing port where she had grown up, to play the rest of the cast; and set-up a profit-sharing co-op to pay her crew. The result was a daring and imaginative meld of docu-fiction: a study of a marriage on the rocks and of the daily struggles of the residents of the fishing village of La Pointe Courte. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless are so often credited with bombing the cinematic rule-book and ushering in the French New Wave, but La Pointe Courte beat them to it.
Working outside the system, embracing new technologies and forging her own path has been Varda’s modus-operandi ever since. And her fiercely personal and spirited cinema has always stood apart: in 1958, a few months before giving birth to her daughter, she made the avant-garde short L’opéra-mouffe that railed against the jubilation that women are expected to feel when they are pregnant and that also drew attention to the poverty Varda saw around her.
Four years later, she returned again to the pavements of Paris from a woman’s perspective. Cléo from 5 to 7 slyly countered the fascination with glamorous women found in so many films, not least those of Varda’s male New Wave colleagues. Corrine Marchand plays the beautiful, spoilt singer Cléo, who abandons her entourage and takes to the streets as she nervously awaits the results of a cancer test. As Varda wanders along with her, she catapults her audience into Cléo’s consciousness in one of cinema’s rare and expansive musings on female identity. How a woman’s consciousness is shaped by the male gaze is the true subject of this philosophical adventure disguised as a melodrama.
With it’s verité footage and innovative treatment of time, Cléo experiments with form just as Varda’s next feature, Le Bonheur (1964) does. An eye-popping Technicolour account of a supposedly happy marriage – and an infidelity – seen largely from the cheating husband’s perspective, proved controversial on its release, particularly among feminists. Even now the film’s dark, ambiguous ending has a sting to it. But Varda is equally unapologetic about her questioning of happiness and her steely and excoriating depiction of women and their position in society.
Despite male-dominated stories abounding on-screen, the lives and inner-journeys of women have largely held centre-stage throughout Varda’s filmmaking career (her loving tribute to her husband, the director Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes (1991) being the main exception). Her short documentary Réponse de femmes (Women’s Reply, 1975) frankly explored women’s status, while Varda’s political anthem One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977) chronicled the protests and battles over abortion during the second wave of Feminism. In The Beaches of Agnes, her 2008 film memoir – look at Varda, treading an intimate confessional line long before the millennial craze kicked in – she recalls how she was one of the famous signees of 1973 ‘The Manifesto of the 343’ (nicknamed ‘The Manifesto of the 343 Sluts’ by the French press) who admitted to having had abortions.
Be it Pomme and Suzanne in One Sings, Cléo or the filmmaker herself, there’s no stopping the women wanderers of Varda’s filmography, they are rebels who stake their claim to the streets. No-where is this more apparent than in Varda’s searing masterpiece, Vagabond (1985). Sandrine Bonnaire plays the fiery drifter Mona, determined to live life on her terms rather than those society foists on her. Inspired by a real story and told using documentary-like interviews with characters played by non-professionals, it illuminates Varda as a trailblazer making docu-fiction long before it was the buzzword and genre du-jour. Vagabond also demonstrates Varda’s unstinting commitment to outsiders.
Most filmmakers on the other side of 70 might slow down, but Varda has done nothing of the sort. Her 2000 documentaryThe Gleaners and I sits in eighth position in Sight & Sound’s The Best Documentaries of All Time poll. It is ostensibly about the act of gathering food and other leftovers that have been discarded. But like all Varda’s films, it gradually broadens out wider and wider: a study of gleaning in art and history becomes a travelogue around France meeting gleaners of all kinds, which turns into a spotlight on people who don’t live by the rules and then a musing on waste and class divisions. The Gleaners and I foregrounds disappearing rural traditions, the joy of recycling – and before you know it, it’s a portrait of the filmmaker herself as a gleaner. Along the way, Varda has intimate conversations with gleaners who live on the edges of society and who generously share their stories. “I got their confidence because I was not looking at them like insects” she believes.
This ethos, honed in her early street photography, has been nurtured throughout her career: it’s there in her 1962 travelogue of post-revolutionary Cuba where Varda hung out with ordinary people on the streets; you can spot it in her documentary about the Black Panthers as she brings the inhabitants of Oakland, California, into focus. It’s even present in her latest feature Faces, Places, as she journeys around rural France meeting and photographing people, placing their giant portraits on the facades of buildings. The film will be released in the UK next year when she turns ninety.
Isabel Stevens works at Sight & Sound magazine and has written on film and photography for the Guardian, Aperture, the RA Magazine, Frieze and Apollo.
Join Isabel for an Illustrated Talk about Agnes Varda on Tuesday 5 September at 18:00.
The Luminaries: Agnes Varda season takes place throughout September at Tyneside Cinema.